Manila, 15 November—Also this week, we marked 23 years since our mother’s passing. Traditionally, we would spend the closest weekend swinging by her grave, but this year we skipped it, mostly because of Covid (and as it would also turn out, also because of Typhoon Ulysses, which also battered Cavite).

So we’re commemorating remotely (as with everything else this year). Last November 1st, I shared a quote from Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things. When I read Strayed, it reminds me of my mother. Allow me to share one more thing that reminded me of her—this one’s a letter from a guy who wants to know how to comfort his wife-to-be who also lost her mother.

The guy writes, “Her mom’s death is always lurking. It comes up on a regular basis. When she cries or talks about how much she misses her mom, I’m supportive, but I usually feel insufficient.”

“I feel lame in the face of her grief,” he adds.

In answering, Strayed recounts the time she discovered a glass jar of stones in her mother’s closet, several months after her death, as she was moving her mother’s stuff out of their house. “It was a devastating process,” she writes. “More brutal in its ruthless clarity than anything I’ve ever experienced or hope to again.”

The jar had been proof of a childhood ritual among them—she and her siblings picking up stones on beaches and trails and giving the notable ones to their mother. “What do you do with the rocks you once gave to your dead mother?” she asks. “Where is their rightful place? To whom do they belong? To what are you obligated? Memory? Practicality? Reason? Faith? Do you put them back in the jar and take them with you across the wild and unkempt sorrow of your twenties?”

“Or do you simply carry them outside and dump them in the yard?”

When my mother died, she left behind a collection of blazers, which she wore to the office once upon a time. They were striking; my mother knew her colors. Looking back, maybe it made her feel confident. Visible. Strong. My mother was in Sales, and I suppose one had to make an Impression. I was too young to understand those kinds of things; too young to ask, even, how to power dress. But I did quite like watching her getting ready for work in the morning, putting her make up on, and wearing her blazer last.

I am reminded of her blazers because of Kamala Harris, who wore this powerful white suit at her victory speech, when she became the first woman to become the United States’ vice president earlier this week.

You’d think as first-born I’d be heir to her array of strikingly colored blazers; alas, I never quite managed to grow into them. It’s the shoulder pads, mostly. I think they’re still in the old house, inside my mother’s closet, hung quietly for the last two decades, untouched.

In her response, Strayed writes about a woman who had been assaulted, and as a result, had to be confined for the long-term, as she was already incapable of living alone. This frustrated the woman, who was a painter and a teacher, because she wanted to go home. Along the way, she convinced herself that in order to do so, she had to “crack a code” in order to convince her caretakers to release her. Of course, this wasn’t possible because there was no code.

“There was no code—only the new fact of her life, changed irrevocably,” Strayed writes. In the months following her mother’s death, Strayed shares she thought similarly: “I believed I could crack a code too. That my own irrevocably changed life could be redeemed, if only I could find the right combination of things.”

Like the glass jar of stones.

But in the end, it wasn’t there. It wasn’t anywhere.

It will never be okay that our mothers are dead, a friend told her. “At the time, she wasn’t yet really my friend. She was fiftysomething and I was forty. Our moms had been dead for ages,” Strayed writes about this particular connection. “We were both writers with kids of our own now. We had good relationships and fulfilling careers. And yet the unadorned truth of what she’d said—it will never be okay—entirely unzipped me.”

“It will never be okay, and yet there we were, the two of us more than okay, both of us happier and luckier than anyone has a right to be. You could describe either one of us as ‘joy on wheels,’ though there isn’t one good thing that has happened to either of us that we haven’t experienced through the lens of our grief.

That grief is a lens—is a good phrase for it. In effect, my mother has coloured and tinted and glazed all of my experiences for the past two decades or so. I carry her with me all the time.

It’s been more than twenty years since my mother died. So long I squint every time the thought comes to me. So long that I’ve finally convinced myself there isn’t a code to crack. The search is over. The stones I once gave my mother have scattered, replaced by the stones my children give to me. I keep the best ones in my pockets. Sometimes there is one so perfect I carry it around for weeks, my hand finding it and finding it, soothing itself along the black arc of it.

Further readings

Thank you for making it this far.